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Play reveals prevalence of assault

Eileen Duffy | Friday, November 17, 2006

While it didn’t boast the international scope of “The Vagina Monologues,” cast members and viewers of the Notre Dame-specific “Loyal Daughters” say the play has increased awareness on the issue of sexual assault and rape at the University, and has the potential to break the reigning “culture of silence” often viewed as surrounding such issues at Notre Dame.

The controversial nature of “The Vagina Monologues” tended to turn off viewers at Notre Dame, said Madison Liddy, who directed both “Daughters” and last spring’s production of the “Monologues.”

“One of the biggest critiques we got was that ‘The Vagina Monologues’ isn’t really applicable to Notre Dame students,” she said. “It’s a very liberal, left-wing way to look at things. Part of me agrees, part of me disagrees … But at the same time, [playwright Emily Weisbecker] and I wanted a way for people to talk about sexuality and sexual violence without feeling like they’re in the wrong place.”

Feminist Voice member Stephanie Brauer said the independent nature of “Loyal Daughters” might help it succeed.

“I think it’s more positively viewed [than ‘Monologues’] on campus, because it doesn’t have direct association with [‘Monologues’ playwright] Eve Ensler, who is a loaded figure in and of herself,” she said.

And “Loyal Daughters,” Liddy said, includes a broader scope of values – like the skit called “Forgiveness,” in which a man who has decided to save himself for marriage falls in love with a woman who has had sex. Through God’s grace, Liddy said, he comes to forgive her, and even re-baptizes her as a born-again virgin in Saint Mary’s Lake.

The play does, however, include its fair share of sexual assault and rape stories – even more than “Monologues” did – meaning the interviews did, as well.

“This play comes from stories of Notre Dame students; therefore I argue that it is even more striking [than ‘The Vagina Monologues’] because it is a reflection of our campus community,” said student body president Lizzi Shappell, who works at the Gender Relations Center and headed up Student Senate’s Sexual Assault Awareness Week two years ago. “Sexual assault is happening on campus.”

History professor Gail Bederman, who was deeply involved in last spring’s “Monologues” debate, left little doubt on the matter, calling sexual assault “an ongoing problem” that will “remain an ongoing problem for a long time.”

Alcohol complicates the already-touchy matter. According to John Corker, a cast member of “Loyal Daughters” who is involved in both Pillars and the “Men Against Violence” campaign, 90 percent of all rape and sexual assault incidents reported nationwide involved alcohol.

“You can’t educate on issues of rape and sexual violence without bringing alcohol into the discussion,” he said.

“Loyal Daughters” certainly identified the alcohol issue.

“The place of alcohol and social life on this campus, that’s becoming clearer, and it came up in the discussion [Monday] night. … I’m just not sure people understand that having sex with someone too drunk to understand is rape,” Bederman said. “As long as that’s not clear to people, both sexes think they need to get plastered to have fun and hook up. I don’t know what one play can do … but this is a real problem.”

Bederman emphasized the presence of sexual assault at colleges nationwide – something worsened by alcohol abuse, she said, noting that in studies from years past, Notre Dame has been shown to have a bigger problem with binge drinking than other schools. But she said a “culture of silence” at Notre Dame only deepens the problem.

“There is a cultural problem here – Student Activities must assume nobody is having sex, so they can’t negotiate uncomfortable positions on what constitutes consensual and nonconsensual sex. … They can’t draw lines other than thumbs up or thumbs down, do it or just don’t do anything.”

Other universities, she said, “are able to talk about issues, the gray areas. Because they do and can assume students are going to have extramarital sex, even promiscuous extramarital sex, they can talk about shades of gray. … You can talk about this question of when something is consent and when something isn’t consent.

“I think at other schools they do that, but you can’t here, because nobody’s supposed to consent whether they’re drunk or not.”

And students like Cassie Papak, also a cast member of “Loyal Daughters,” say that silence exists even among friends at Notre Dame.

“It’s come up in discussions with girlfriends. They feel uncomfortable talking about sexual situations in general,” she said. “… It’s more a fear of peer judgment than University action.”

Still, many in the campus community agree a discussion has been started that is breaking that silence. Senior Emily Kelley, who attended Wednesday night’s performance of “Loyal Daughters,” said a few of her professors have breached the topic of sexual violence in classes this week. But victims of sexual assault and rape need more than just this play, Papak said.

“It takes a lot more than a pep talk for someone to overturn their world to expose that something like that happened to them,” she said.

Ideally, Brauer said, there wouldn’t be a need for plays like “Daughters” and “Monologues” at all.

“The day we don’t need events like this is the day is the day we’ve succeeded. It’s the day when Notre Dame is a sexual assault-free, rape-free campus,” she said. “That’s obviously the goal.”

Whether “Monologues” will be performed remains to be seen, although Liddy said her involvement in another performance would prevent her from participating in “Monologues” – should it take place – this spring. Her main concern, however, was fundraising for the event.

For the past two years, “The Vagina Monologues” has been prohibited from fundraising, including charging for tickets, at Notre Dame. As proceeds are sent to the South Bend YWCA and the St. Joseph County SOS Rape Crisis Center (at an average of $8,000 per run of the “Monologues”), Liddy called the University’s fundraising prohibition “insane.” The free tickets do, though, allow more students to see the performance, she said.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” she said.

Bederman, on the other hand, suggested that perhaps “Monologues” has run its course, at least for the time being.

“It’s my impression that’s what’s happening is different years, different groups of people say, “Oh, we need the ‘Monologues’ … [but] it’s not like the football schedule. Personally, I’m hoping we have a vacation from the ‘Monologues’ this year.”